Justice stays illusive for families of Ulfa victims


89248As most of the militant leaders including those of United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) have joined in peace talks with the authorities and started bargaining for amnesty from their past-misdeeds, the victim families of decades long insurgency in northeast India express worry whether they would ever get justice in the coming days. The banned armed outfits, which once chased the dream of sovereign lands out of India, were also engaged in numerous cases of extortion, kidnapping and even killings. In Assam, where the Ulfa advocated for Swadhin Asom, many journalists as well as common people faced brutal assaults from the militants whenever they made critical comments against the rebels’ various illegal activities.

One notable example is the brutal assassination of journalist Kamala Saikia, a freedom fighter turned teacher turned commentator on various social issues. The brave journalist of Sivasagar in eastern Assam was taken away by some Ulfa rebels on the night of August 9, 1991, and his severely injured body was recovered next morning on the Janji-Amguri road. The militants tortured Saikia before killing and his whole body carried the marks of cruelties.

Besides Saikia, dozens other editor-journalist-correspondents of Assam namely Punarmal Agarwala, Pabitra Narayan, Dipak Swargiary, Parag Kumar Das, Manik Deuri, Panja Ali, Nurul Haque, Ratneswar Sarma Shastri, Dinesh Brahma, Indramohan Hakasam, Prahlad Gowala, Bodosa Narzary, Mohammad Muslemuddin, Jagajit Saikia, Anil Majumdar etc have lost their lives to various insurgent-assailants in the last two & half decades. Shockingly the endless cry for justice for all the victim families literally fall on deaf ears as not a single perpetrator has been legally punished till date.

The painful saga of Saikia’s un-resolved murder case remains a constant reminder of the authority’s failure to trace and punish the criminals under the law of the land. The septuagenarian journalist paid with his life as he turned critical to the militants for their disruptive activities. Feeling the increasing heat of criticism, the Ulfa leaders initially issued threats to Saikia asking him to stop writing in the newspapers against the outfit, but the Gandhian was determined to his principle. Finally the militants eliminated the outspoken gentleman in a brutal manner.

For decades, the Ulfa remained silent over Saikia’s assassination, but facing furies from the media fraternity of the State, the outfit leaders later admitted that they had killed Saikia as he used to work as a ‘spy to Indian authorities against the outfit’. However the Ulfa chairmen Arabinda Rajkhowa sought an apology from the bereaved family after his release from the jail.

Emerged in 1979 with the objective of attaining a homeland for indigenous people of Assam out of the country through an armed struggle the Ulfa slowly turned into an armed outfit that spread terror among the common people with its various criminal activities including explosions in public places. After operating for three decades the outfit got split, where the Rajkhowa lead faction joined in peace talks with the governments and the other faction led by its
military chief Paresh Barua continued waging the war against New Delhi. Ageing Barua is understood to run his present activities from the Ulfa (Independent) hideouts somewhere located in Myanmar-China border areas.

Soon after Saikia’s murder, his family members lodged an FIR at Sivasagar police station and the State police carried out the investigation for seven years. But ultimately the police closed the case on 5 September 1998 citing insufficient evidence and witnesses, which created public anger across the region. The frustrated family then appealed to the State government to reopen the case. It was then handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which too failed to charge-sheet anyone, even though the investigative agency interrogated many individuals
including some surrendered Ulfa militants namely Kushal Duori, Netra Chetia, Raja Mumin, Lalit Shyam, Baba Phukan, Uma Gogoi, Mohan Sarma, Indra Chetia, Chitra Dihingia, Rohini Khanikar and Robin Neog.

Today except Kushal alias Jayanta Hazarika, who is now a member the State Legislative Assembly from Thowra constituency, all those former militants relating to the case had either died or got killed in different encounters. The CID submitted its report in 2008 without convicting any one claiming that it could not gather conclusive evidences.

Seeking justice, Saikia’s eldest son Dhananjoy filed a petition in Gauhati High Court on 27 June 2008. He claimed that the local police in its final report indicted Kushal, now a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator, along with four other militants for their direct involvement in the case. The court ordered a re-investigation of the case (no: 291/91u/s 302,365,3/4) and finally the State police had reopened it.

Earlier observing slow progress on the investigation, nearly 30 journalist- editor-columnists of Assam signed a memorandum and submitted it to the then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi on 3 August 2003. Later the Journalist Kamala Saikia Memorial Trust submitted another memorandum to Gogoi on 6 August 2006. Even the former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was also approached to intervene on the matter. Dr Singh, who represents Assam in Rajya Sabha, was briefed about the hazards of journalism in the State by the then Editors Guild’s president Rajdeep Sardesai. Listening to him on 14 August 2009 at PMO, Dr Singh promised to take up the matter with the State government.

“It is a matter of grave concern that the family of a journalist, who was killed to stop his critical article against the banned outfit, has to wait for justice all these years,” said Kanaksen Deka, a senior editor and the president of Kamala Saikia trust.  Even today, the victim family and the journalist fraternity have no idea about the progress and if justice would be delivered some day.

The victim family with the concerned trust recently raised voices for a high level probe (preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation) to examine the sensitive case.

Gogoi on principle agreed to the demand. But no breakthrough was achieved. Even the Gogoi led Congress government decided to institute an award in Saikia’s honour and necessary processes were completed including inviting nominations from various scribe’s bodies of the State.

Working in the insurgency stricken northeast India still continues to be dangerous for the working journalists. The insurgency and unrest among the youths of the region, where a number of armed outfits were still fighting for various demands varying from sovereignty to self-rule, continue putting tremendous challenges to the working journalists on the ground. They remain vulnerable to threats from the insurgents, surrendered militants and even the government security elements all the time. Sadly and shamefully, it is still going on!

The author is a Guwahati-based media commentator and a member of Journalist Kamala Saikia Memorial Trust